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Can Montana ranchers follow Blue Frog's hamburger success in China?

Can Montana ranchers follow Blue Frog's hamburger success in China?

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BEIJING — Montana already has a hoofprint in the Chinese restaurant world, even if the burger comes from Australia.

The Blue Frog restaurant chain features a “Montana” hamburger piled high with onion rings, bacon strips and barbecue sauce on its menu in high-end shopping malls throughout the Chinese capital city. Harlowton native Bob Boyce started the business in 1999, and had franchises in almost every major Chinese city by 2015.

Whether the chain will be able to capitalize on a new deal between Montana beef producers and the Chinese online retailer remains to be seen. U.S. beef faces several hurdles even though it won access to the Chinese market in 2016.

The most obvious is price: Chinese retailers charge nearly twice as much for American beef as they do for the same cuts of steak from Australia or South American suppliers. Part of that has to do with more favorable import tariffs those older trade partners enjoy, and part is the relative scarcity of the American supply. Overall, beef is a premium ingredient at Chinese grocery stores, with choice cuts selling for $20 a kilo or more.

Custom will be another challenge. Chinese diners consume lots of pork in a fantastic variety of forms, but have significantly fewer beef recipes. Hamburgers and steaks fall in the category of “foreign food” in China; a novelty for special occasions rather than a routine meal. The Montana burger at Blue Frog costs $15.

Then there’s the meat itself. Several Chinese shoppers told the Missoulian that U.S. beef looks different — more reddish — than the Southern Hemisphere beef they’re accustomed to. And American expatriates said they despaired of finding a steak in Beijing that had the mouth feel and richness they enjoyed back home.

Sen. Steve Daines, who worked in China for Proctor and Gamble earlier in his career, said the new market will take some time to find its steady state, and Montanans have to be patient as it develops.

“We’re just in an early stage,” said Daines, a Republican. “It will take some time to adjust to Chinese requirements. But as I was joking with the Chinese premier, Australian beef has a distinct kangaroo taste.”

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